Jewish Fertility Foundation offers both financial and emotional support

JFF is trying to figure out the most effective way to expand as it opens in four new locations

Infertility changes the life of everyone who experiences it, says Lynn Goldman. In her case, the changes were tangible. “Infertility creates a strain on every part of a person’s life. It’s a financial strain, it’s a strain on their marriage, it also affects people spiritually. I went to a support group in a church,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy.

A lawyer in Atlanta whose practice focused on child welfare, Goldman expanded her services to include reproductive law, which includes such issues as the hiring of surrogates. She also started a support group at her synagogue. It was when she was running the support group that she heard from Elana Frank, who had undergone fertility treatment in Israel, where insurance covers the high-cost procedures such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF.) Frank had moved to Atlanta, and wanted to do something to help people in the Jewish community who needed but couldn’t afford treatment.

The two joined forces, founding the Jewish Fertility Foundation (JFF) with Frank as CEO; Goldman is the board chair. It opened its first office in Atlanta in 2016 to provide both financial and emotional support for people in the local Jewish community suffering from infertility; later it added an office in Cincinnati, funded by Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. Now it’s charting a plan for national expansion. 

JFF’s growth reflects a broader trend in the Jewish community, as demonstrated in late February by a cross-denominational online meeting to raise awareness and offer support. About 2,000 people attended with 11 organizations participating. Sponsors included UpStart, which helps Jewish nonprofits get off the ground and grow; JScreen, which promotes genetic testing; and Hadassah, the Zionist women’s organization.

Organized by I Was Supposed to Have a Baby and SVIVAH, the online gathering also drew such groups as ATime, Bonei Olam, Hasidah, JFF, Fruitful and YeshTikvah — the first time all of the groups had worked together. ATime, which started its work about 30 years ago, is the oldest group; Bonei Olam and Hasidah also make grants for treatment.

More financial support is needed, however, said Amy Klein, author of The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant Without Losing Your Mind who is also an ambassador for reConceiving Infertility, the Hadassah initiative to destigmatize infertility and pursue policy goals, like more insurance coverage for treatment.

Like Frank, Klein underwent treatment in Israel.

“The Jewish community in America needs to be more like Israel in helping people afford treatment,” she told eJP.

Some community leaders say the community would be well-served by a leading national organization, as well as local efforts.

“I don’t see anybody owning this space as I do family services or mental health,” said Debbi Cooper, who is supporting JFF as both a donor and advisor in a private capacity because of her own experience with infertility, and also works for the Harold Grinspoon Foundation as director of engagement for the PJ Library. “I think there is something important about an organization that transcends one locale and is thinking broader in scope, whether that’s a network or a more hierarchical structure.”

In Frank’s model, an interested community first forms an exploratory committee and works with JFF to assess the level of need, and whether the community will be able to raise enough money — $15,000 for a small city, $30,000 for a medium-sized city and $50,000 for a large city — to support a part-time staffer and a minimum amount of grant-making for at least two years.

The Atlanta headquarters spends between $100,000 and $130,000 per new location on items such as oversight, additional grants and advertising. Grants are distributed after a review process that includes medical and financial committees, Frank said.

If a new city’s exploratory committee can raise the funds, the foundation and the committee will hire the staff person, who will be trained by the foundation. Four locations — Birmingham, Ala.; South Florida; Tampa, Fla.; and Washington, D.C. — have completed the exploratory phase and started their fundraising, Frank said. Denver is assembling its exploratory committee, while Columbus, Ohio; Nashville, Tenn.; Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina and San Antonio have all called the foundation to express interest in bringing the program to their area, as have 11 others, Frank said.

“Elana has taken on a big problem, but I recognized early on that she is the right person to take this national,” said Jay Kaiman, president of The Marcus Foundation in Atlanta, which has been funding JFF’s operating costs since 2016. In 2019, the foundation gave JFF $150,000, and the Zalik Family Foundation, also in Atlanta, donated $50,000, according to JFF’s tax filing.

Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus is one of the Jewish community’s most high-profile proponents of genetic testing and was an early lead supporter of JScreen. JFF’s work was a natural fit, Kaiman said. The Marcus Foundation sees JFF’s original Atlanta location as a “demonstration project” that could be started and refined locally and then replicated, Kaiman said.

Frank is applying for larger amounts of funding from bigger foundations in addition to seeking leadership training. She has a fellowship from Jewish Women International (JWI) that provides training and support for female leaders.

“We knew Elana, as the founder of a new Jewish organization, would bring a unique lens to our conversations,” said Meredith Jacobs, JWI’s CEO. “Jewish community and traditions are so fully centered on family, it is especially painful and isolating for women who are struggling with infertility.”

Many of her supporters donate because they are persuaded by the notion that Jewish fertility is essential to Jewish continuity, and she has brought in some newer funders who like the fact that through her work she is also doing outreach to unaffiliated Jews, who are about a third of her clients.

The primary reason for the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati’s $180,000 grant to its JFF office is to help people in need, said Kim Newstadt, director of research and learning at the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, adding, “Of course we hope a positive experience with JFF-CINCY sparks deep connection to Jewish friends and community, but that is more of an aspirational side effect versus the core motivation for our funding.”

With Cooper and an informal, volunteer advisory board of about a dozen other supporters, Frank is also considering a crowdfunding campaign on an established platform like GoFundMe.

“It’s part of the beauty and the challenge of this issue,” Cooper said. “We have to figure what will compel someone to support this, if they haven’t actually gone through the experience themselves.”